“You guys are making me really really aware of the fact that I’m single,” Briggs said, glaring at Hope and Daniel.
Daniel had been whispering something in Hope’s ear, making her giggle. He turned to Briggs, who was seated across the table from them. “It’s not my fault you’re single. Why don’t you do something about it?”
Briggs laughed. He was handsome, with a friendly personality and dimples. “Nah,” he shook his head. “I’m too young and beautiful to settle down.”
All the others seated on the table burst into laughter. They were all Daniel’s friends, Uche and his wife CeeCee who looked incredibly beautiful and glamorous; Temi and her fiancé Deinde. They’d known each other for years and teasing Briggs was something they obviously all enjoyed.
“Someone has been deceiving you,” Ceecee said. “Young and beautiful where?”
Briggs looked hurt. “I’m going to find a really pretty girl to dance with.” He got up. “Someone who appreciates a guy with a connected beard.”
That gave rise to another round of teasing. Briggs walked away laughing, and Daniel turned to Hope. “Are you enjoying yourself?”
“Yes.” She gave him a contented smile. The music was lively, and food and drinks were flowing. Brigg’s uncle had a huge home just off the Lekki Expressway, and the large garden was now covered with an air-conditioned tent full of tables and chairs and lots of people, eating drinking and dancing. “I love the live band.”
He didn’t reply, but his eyes stayed on her face. She met his gaze, a half smile playing on her lips as images of shared intimacy floated lazily across her brain.
“I want to kiss you,” he said softly.
Hope chuckled. “Sure, give your friends something to tease you about.”
“They tease me enough already,” he chuckled and speared a piece of asun with a skewer, then held it up to her lips. “Have you tasted this?”
She took a bite. “Delicious,” she said, licking her lips.
He sighed. “You’re killing me.”
“Are you sure you guys won’t go and get a room?” Uche said.
“They’re acting romantic movie for us,” Temi added.
CeeCee got up, revealing her round baby bump. “Hope, abeg leave that man for a few minutes, let’s go and look for the ladies’ room.”
Hope stood, laughing as Daniel held on to her waist, refusing to let her go.
“I go love oooo!” Ceecee teased.
Uche pointed to her stomach. “Which love is more than this big belly I’ve already given you?”
Hope was still laughing as she, Ceecee and Temi navigated the party, finding their way into the main house where there were a couple of guest bathrooms on the ground floor.
“Now that the guys are not here, you know you can ask us anything about Daniel if you’re curious,” Temi said to Hope.
Hope laughed. “Even if I ask…he’s your friend. You’re just going to tell me that he’s perfect.”
“Well…” Ceecee said. “He’s a good guy.”
“Yup,” Temi agreed. “No dirt on him.” She paused. “So you guys work in the same building?”
“Yes,” Hope replied, and they started talking about work. Both girls had thriving careers and they were interested to know about Hope’s work too. They left the house, still talking as they navigated their way back to the party. They were right outside the tent when Hope heard a familiar voice.
She stiffened. If she had been alone, she would have ignored him and kept walking, but Temi and Ceecee had already stopped and turned in the direction of the voice.
Charles standing at the edge of the tent, near the hedge of flowers that lined the fence. He had his phone in his hand like he had been making a call, and he was looking at Hope with an expression of pleasant surprise.
“Hello,” Hope replied. She kept her voice pleasant for the sake of her companions. Ceecee and Temi waved politely as Charles walked toward them.
“You know him?” Temi asked, there was a hint of protectiveness in her voice.
Hope nodded. What else could she say? If she decided to keep walking now, it would only arouse Ceecee and Temi’s curiosity, and she wasn’t ready to explain to them who Charles was and why he deserved to be ignored. Better to just exchange a few polite words with him and go back inside.
“Okay,” Ceecee said. “Let’s leave you guys to say hi. I can’t stand for too long because,” she gestured to her belly and laughed. “We’ll see you back at the table, okay?”
Temi was looking at Hope’s face, her expression slightly odd, but she took Ceecee’s hand and they both walked inside the huge party tent.
Charles still had the pleased smile on his face and Hope longed to knock it off with a kick. He sauntered over.
“How’re you doing?”
Hope smiled thinly. Outside the tent there were a few other stragglers from the party; servers and a couple of teenagers showing each other stuff on their phone screens and laughing. She imagined a scene like the last time she’s seen him and cringed.
“I’m fine,” she said evenly. “Congratulations on your baby. I’m sure you and your wife must be very pleased.”
He looked taken aback, but only for a moment. “Yes… Ah. We decided to work things out.”
Hope chuckled. He was still going with the lie that they’d been separated? She didn’t care enough to argue.
“Well, it was nice running into you,” she started. “I’m going–”
“Don’t go,” he said suddenly. There was an edge of desperation in his voice. “Look, I know you hate me, but you don’t know how it is. You have no idea.”
Hope stepped back but he only moved closer. “Charles–”
“Do you know what it’s like to feel trapped? With someone who sees you as a possession, an accessory. She doesn’t care about my feelings. She doesn’t care about what I think. As long as she has a husband. That’s all I am Hope, a word to make her feel like she has fulfilled some of the expectations of her as a woman.”
Hope stared at him, confused. Was that what he told himself to justify his lies and his cheating? What did he expect her to do, even if it was true? What did he expect her to feel? She met his gaze and his eyes looked wild. Had he been drinking? She couldn’t really tell.
“I don’t know what you want me to say,” she said softly. As much as she pitied him, she had no intention of being a crutch to help him through his misery. “You made your choices, Charles. The best you can do is learn to live with them.”
His laugh was bitter. “So, I have to be miserable for the rest of my life?” His voice softened. “You’ve become heartless, Hope. What happened to all the love, all the feelings you had for me?”
He’d never looked so unattractive to her as he did, right there. He was a liar and a cheat. A manipulator. He would never take responsibility for his own happiness, but he would blame and cajole other people to give him the things he needed to make himself feel good. Their time, their bodies, their feelings… How had she never seen it all those years? How had she never realised what he was?
Without a word, she turned and started to walk away.
He grabbed her arm and pulled her to him. Just as she started to wrench herself free, there was a female voice from the edge of the tent, high and disbelieving. “Charles!”
He froze and Hope stepped away from him. She turned in the direction of the newcomer, a pretty woman, slightly younger than Hope, with an instantly recognizable patina of wealth and privilege. Her face was crumbling as she started at Charles, then, she turned to Hope and her expression went from betrayal to hatred.
“You!” she said, her voice high. “You! I know about you. Why won’t you leave my husband alone? Why are you so desperate? Leave him alone!” her voice broke on a sob.
Hope stared at her. “I didn’t…”
“Don’t talk to me, you slut! He has told me about you. He dumped you for a reason. Leave him alone! Don’t you have any shame? Why can’t you stop chasing him? He’s married now. We have a new-born baby!”
She should have been angry at being spoken to like that. She should have felt affronted, but all Hope felt was pity. This would have been me, she thought. This would have been me, married to Charles and blaming other women because accepting the reality that the love of my life was a cheating lying scumbag would have been too much for me to bear.
She held on to that compassion and the woman continued to insult her. They were a few people outside the tent, and more were gathering even though the noise of the live band drowned out most of the shouting.
“Don’t you have anything to say for yourself?” the woman said. “You were embracing him. Right here. A married man. Do you know what that makes you?” her face contorted. “It makes you a prostitute.”
“You are wrong,” Hope said calmly.
Instead of calming Charles’ wife, Hope’s words seemed to inflame her, and she lunged at Hope. Charles, unsurprisingly did nothing to stop her. It was Daniel, arriving just at that moment who stepped in front of Hope. Charles’ wife lost her balance, falling toward him, and he held out his arms and steadied her. She started to cry.
“Get your hands off my wife,” Hope heard Charles say.
Daniel stepped back from the weeping woman. He glared at Charles, who wilted under the force of his gaze. “Don’t ever let me see you near Hope again,” he said, his voice low.
Charles sneered. “She was mine before she ever met you. We’ve shared things that–”
“You’ve shared what?” Daniel interrupted. “Look man, have some shame and stop disgracing yourself and your wife.”
Charles seemed to deflate. Hurriedly, he took his wife’s arm but she pulled it away from him and started walking away. He followed her.
Daniel turned towards Hope, then he scanned the small crowd that had gathered. Hope cringed, thinking of all the ways this would be turned into an embarrassing story on the gossip blogs. “Daniel–”
“Let’s go,” he interrupted her. His voice was curt and she could feel the barely leashed anger radiating from his body. She could see it in the tense set of his shoulders, the hard line of his jaw, and his silence as he walked to the car.
She followed him, entering the car when he opened the door for her. She was aware that the whole situation would potentially cause some embarrassment, but it wasn’t her fault. She hadn’t invited Charles nor had she encouraged or even responded to his wife.
Daniel entered the driver’s seat and put on the ignition. He started to drive, silent. Hope bore the silence until they were on the express then she couldn’t take it any longer.
“Is there something you want to say to me?” she said.
“Is there something you want to say to me,” he replied coolly.
Hope frowned. “Look, maybe you should take me home. You’re obviously not in the mood to talk.”
His fingers tightened on the wheel. “You think I should be in the mood to talk? I just saw you almost fighting over your ex, a man you claim to have gotten over, but who keeps popping up everywhere–”
“For God’s sake, be reasonable,” Hope said. ‘You think I invited him to Brigg’s uncle’s party? You think I knew he would be there? You think I enjoyed having his wife rain insults on me?”
“I don’t know,” he replied. “Why were you talking to him? After the last time? Even if you’re still hung up on him, why would you put yourself in a position like that with his wife? His wife?” he took a calming breath. “I expected better of you, Hope.”
Hope closed her eyes. She was angry and sad. Pain tore at the insides of her chest and a tight ache built in her heart. How could he assume the worst without knowing any of the facts? “Hung up on him?” she repeated softly. “You must think very little of me.”
Daniel didn’t reply.
“I saw him standing there when I was walking back with Ceecee and Temi. He spoke to me and I didn’t want to call attention by rudely ignoring him. When the girls left me with him, I tried to cut our conversation short, but his wife arrived and assumed the worst.” Hope’s voice was quiet as she continued. “I’m not hung up on him. He means nothing to me… and I would have thought that after all this time, I wouldn’t need to have to convince you of that.”
She turned to face him. His eyes were fixed on the road. “I’m sorry I’m not perfect. I’m sorry if I’m tainting your irreproachable life with all the baggage from my past. I’m sorry if I caused you some embarrassment–”
“No, let me finish. You should have asked me what happened. You should have tried to listen to me, but instead, you chose the narrative that made me somehow at fault? So, you could express your disappointment in me for that small incident? I’m not perfect. If you’ve built up a paragon in your head…that’s not me. I’m a real person, with a past, with issues that could pop up occasionally. I’m not a paper ideal who ticks all the dots for a rich guy looking for a smart, good-looking girl to be in a relationship with. I’m not some ready-made-for-commitment type of girl that you can show off to your friends and they’ll all pat you on the back for making a good choice. I’m not the girl you choose just because you want to settle down.”
“You think that’s what this is,” he asked quietly. “You think I want you just because you fit an image in my head? Just because you tick some imaginary boxes for someone I want to settle down with?”
She turned her gaze out, towards the window, choosing not to respond. Her throat felt raw, she wanted to cry. Why are we fighting? Everything had been so perfect just hours ago.
“Hope, if that’s what you think about me,” he continued, “Then why are you here?”
Because I love you. Because I want to show you every single part of me; the good and the bad and have you still love me. Because I want you to know without a doubt that I would choose you over and over, again and again, every time. The words screamed in her head but she didn’t say them. Instead, she kept her gaze outside, watching the expressway, the buildings, and the pedestrians fly by.
They both remained silent until he pulled up in front of her house. She didn’t wait even though her heart was crying for him to say something. She pushed open the door and hurried to the gate, and once she was inside, in the solitude of her room, she finally allowed the tears that had built up inside to flow.